Our present Laws that relate to Murtherers, High-way Men, and House-breakers, are too favourable, and insufficient for the end they are intended....they who show no mercy should find none; and if hanging will not restrain them, Hanging them in chains and starving them, or....breaking them on the wheel, or whipping them to death.
— Hanging Not Punishment Enough. (Anon 1701).

In the eighteenth century an intrinsic part of most criminal punishments was that they took place in public. From whippings to the pillory, punishments for crimes were as much about socially shaming the criminal as physically harming them. The crowd at these events also played a vital role. Justice had to be seen to be done and the attendance of people to watch the process was as important, if not more, than the punishment itself. Punishments often took place in the centre of towns or in locations that would garner maximum attention from as wide an audience as possible. At the apex of this system of 'educative' punishments was the public execution, but by the mid eighteenth people were beginning to doubt both its deterrent power and its application. Several leading commentators believed that far from being a horrifying and cowing spectacle, the execution was often a day of great glory for the criminal. 

The Pillory Triumphant (1765). Wellcome Library no. 581543i. Image used under Creative Commons 4.0.

Battle of Fontenoy 1745. 1747 (Salon de 1757). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By the mid eighteenth century there were widespread fears around the problem of crime in London and, indeed, further afield. A burgeoning press was reporting crime on an increasingly frequent basis and was, in part, responsible for a widespread perception that it was dramatically on the rise. Coupled with this, the end of the war of Austrian Succession (1740-48) had led to a mass demobilisation. Many feared that the returning troops would turn to drink and crime for their employ. They deemed the laws of the country not fit to tackle this perceived crime wave and felt that the punishments for certain crimes lacked the necessary deterrent force. There were growing fears that crimes of hugely different magnitudes were now indistinguishable in how they were punished. In particular, a vast increase in the number of crimes punishable by death (known latterly as the 'Bloody Code') led people to worry that murder and more serious offences would need an additional deterrent to set them apart in the minds of the public and criminals alike. 


Dr Richard Ward.
The years 1747-55 witnessed a vast increase in the volume of crime reporting published in London – in newspapers, criminal biographies, periodicals, accounts of trials and the last dying speeches of executed offenders.
— Richard M. Ward, Print Culture, Crime and Justice in 18th-Century London (Bloomsbury, 2014).

Contemporaries had no doubt that it was much more dangerous in 1750 to walk the streets of London or to travel into the capital by coach than it had been two years earlier.
— J.M.Beattie, Crime and the Courts in England 1660-1800, (OUP) p.520

William Hogarth's The Fourth Stage of Cruelty: Plate IV The Reward of Cruelty. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


The response to these fears was the Murder Act, passed into law in 1752. The Act dictated that, "for the horrid crime of murder" some "further terror" be added to the punishment of execution. These further terrors were two fold, dissection by Barber Surgeons or Hanging in Chains otherwise known as gibbeting. Neither punishment was expressly new, but this was the first time they were indelibly linked with the crime of murder. The Act further dictated that criminals were not to be given a Christian burial, a punishment in and of itself. The speed with which the Act was passed was remarkable, moving from first announcement in the House of Commons to its arrival on the statue books in just 45 days. It was to have a lasting effect on surgery, the landscape and the criminal justice system of England, Wales and Scotland. 

Whereas the horrid crime of murder has of late been more frequently perpetrated than formerly, and particularly in and near the metropolis of this kingdom, contrary to the known humanity and natural genius of the British nation: and whereas it is thereby become necessary, that some further terror and peculiar mark of infamy be added to the punishment of death, now by law inflicted on such as shall be guilty of the said heinous offence:
— The opening paragraph of An act for better preventing the horrid crime of murder (1751) 25 Geo. II c. 37




BANNER IMAGE: "The Old Bailey, Known Also as the Central Criminal Court", from Volume 2 of The Microcosm of London: or, London in Miniature. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons licence.

BODY TEXT: Patrick Low